Friday, July 10, 2009

The Community Schools Alliance

There has been some continuing coverage of the Community Schools Alliance, a municipal politicians' group coalescing around the impact of rural school closures. Debora Van Brenk at the London Free Press first wrote about the group as its creation was discussed at Middlesex County and West Middlesex council meetings. The Strathroy Age-Dispatch contributed an article as well, featuring Glencoe parent Karen Aranha's analysis of school capacities v. enrolment in the Thames Valley District School Board. The latest coverage came this week, from the Free Press' Chip Martin as well as the St. Catharines Standard's Tiffany Mayer.
Of the two, I prefer Mayer's piece-- you can tell it's written by someone with experience in education. Nothing against Martin's piece, but he's the LFP's politics reporter. From Mayer's article:
County council decided earlier this year to poll other small municipalities at risk of losing schools and form a coalition to fight what it saw as a flawed accommodation review process and its impact on “the socio-economic fabric” of communities.
Niagara-on-the-Lake, which stands to lose its only high school if 350 students don’t attend by Oct. 31, got involved after Town Coun. Jim Collard met Doug Reycraft, Southwest Middlesex Mayor and alliance chairman, at an Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) meeting, and discovered what their municipalities had in common.
“Really, you just change a couple of words and it could have been our area very easily,” (NOTL Lord Mayor Gary) Burroughs said after hearing the same story at the group’s first meeting two weeks ago.
Burroughs said the group’s mandate is to make boards more accountable for its decisions to close schools and give communities the chance to appeal those rulings.
As a media-seat viewer to the Middlesex County accommodation reviews that provided the genesis for the CSA, I have some unique perspective to the background and context at hand here. There are two completed ARCs in the county -- a 'north/east' one with five schools, and a 'west' one with five schools. In both cases, the committees' recommendations did not include any school closures -- in fact, from the first round of 10 ARCs at the TVDSB, I would say the 'west' ARC was the only one to present a volley of recommendations with some real meat to them. The committee had a commitment from local municipalities and even a neighbouring First nation that tentatively supported its recommendations. Up to that point, its report was the most innovative response I'd seen as a result of the ARC process. Currently, there are no ARCs happening in Middlesex County. London and Oxford have borne the brunt of the 15 ARCs commissioned in the TVDSB to-date-- with five apiece. (Which when complete, may change Aranha's much-touted analysis)
These two Middlesex ARCs also presented the board with two of its three administrative reviews to-date. David Cooke came out on two occasions after review petitions were accepted by the ministry. His first report here, second here. I've blogged about portions of his second report recently, particularly his recommendation the board do a better job of overtly explaining why it prefers schools with student populations in the 350-400 range (Most of the Middlesex schools recommended for closure are full, but smaller than that). The board got the message-- take a look at the minutes from an Ingersoll-Beachville ARC to see some of that rationale.
These politicians are entitled to lobby for the interests of their communities. However I doubt Minister Kathleen Wynne or the Ministry of Education is going to do any more than what's already done in releasing revised guidelines. The province has always maintained these are local decisions, left to local school boards and their locally elected trustees. I would challenge its members to broaden their horizons however, and allow politicians from any community to join. Rural areas and small towns don't have a monopoly on 'community schools,' and the growth in their numbers if these other communities could join would have an impact. I doubt the group would allow that, given its focus on how school closures are just another element in the destruction of rural Ontario.
As an aside, this is not the first such group-- early in the world of ARCs the Coalition for Small Schools was formed and still exists. They've been rather silent lately.


Anonymous said...

London has bourne the brunt? With all due respect... what do you mean? The 6 London trustees have conducted 5 ARCs while the 6 county trustees have conducted 10. Please look at the list of schools that have been reviewed or are being reviewed now and consider the number of communities involved.

On January 1st, 2008, in the midst of Phase 1 ARC activity, the London Free Press reported on the existing excess space and declining enrollment happening within Thames Valley's jurisdiction - factors touted as the main reasons for conducting these reviews. Nine of the ten most vacant schools listed in the report are in London. It's understandable that many people in small communities and rural areas feel that the TVDSB has been taking a rather unbalanced approach in dealing with a 'board-wide problem'.

You're right in saying that rural areas and small towns don't have a monopoly on 'community schools'. It's just that in many cases, schools serve as the only public buildings that keep these communities connected. This is a fact that the Ministry of Education claims to whole-heartedly support. There are inherent differences between rural and urban living - there just are. These differences need to be addressed, not ignored, by implementing solutions (beyond the cookie-cutter approach) that don't sacrifice ANY Thames Valley families' sense of 'home'.

When the TVDSB BEGINS to seriously look at schools in London, no doubt, there will be a tremendous increase in public outcry - as there should be. Thankfully, municipalities are mobilizing now to try to hold the Ministry of Education accountable for its current, flawed accommodation review process. While it may have been designed to maintain local, informed decision-making, the process has given the public very little decision-making ability or responsibility at all, when put into practice by the TVDSB. And, with no real appeal mechanism in place, the TVDSB can continue to simply go through the motions of collecting public input.